The Liberal opposition and local teachers say the province needs a blanket policy that will make COVID vaccinations mandatory for all K-12 schools in the B.C. and are fearful of the provincial government’s plan to leave it up to individual school boards to make that decision.
On Thursday Premier John Horgan said vaccine mandates should be a last resort for workers in B.C. schools and that local school board trustees know better than the government what’s best for their communities.
But Liberal interim leader Shirley Bond says with infection rates continuing to be problematic across the province and vaccines proven to be effective it should not be left up to the 60 school boards to set the policy on whether school staff should be vaccinated.
“Certainly, we’re seeing the number of cases in school-aged children increase and we have parents that are concerned, we have staff that are concerned and from our perspective having a patchwork approach to whether or not vaccination should be required will be a problem,” said Bond Friday morning.
“This is a decision that the government needs to make. It has certainly looked at provincewide policies when it comes to mask use, the vaccine pass, all of those issues, and this should be treated the same. We need to have a consistently applied set of expectations. There needs to be a provincewide approach to ensure that children and staff feel safe in school and that parents have a clear understanding of what the expectations are no matter where you live in British Columbia.”
Bond, the MLA for Prince George-Valemount and a former SD 57 trustee who chaired the local board before she entered provincial politics, pointed to some areas of the province with multiple school boards, such as the Fraser-Nicola riding, which has four school boards within its boundaries. She says four separate decisions by school trustees on vaccination policy in one region will lead to confusion if differing policies are adopted by each board.
On Oct. 1, with infection rates continuing to rise across the province, the government revised its mask policy to include all students from kindergarten to Grade 3. Bond says the government’s lack of a comprehensive return-to-school policy is putting the health of students and school staff at risk.
“They had to back up on the mask mandate, they had to back up on notification of COVID exposures and outbreaks for parents, and we still are waiting for answers on (school building) ventilation and what was done during the summer, and now we see confusion and lack of clarity and lack of leadership when it comes to vaccination requirements in schools,” said Bond.
“We need the education minister and the premier to show leadership and to make sure that the Number 1 priority is the health and safety of students and parents across the province. Parents want certainty and now they are going to have to wait to reach out to their local school boards to sort out what’s going to happen across the province. This is a public health issue and it needs to be treated that way.”
Daryl Beauregard, first vice-president of the Prince George District Teachers’ Association, says the pandemic is a real threat to the health of teachers, students and parents and needs to be treated that way. He says it is the government’s responsibility to set policy on staff vaccination and how that would be enforced.
“I personally support mandatory vaccination and I worry that not all of my members will make it through the pandemic, and vaccination is the best way I can recommend protection” said Beauregard, who heads the PGDTA health and safety committee.
“I’m quite concerned for school boards to be left on their own to make these decisions. There could be some resistance in the community, there could be some fears. I think that’s a very serious decision to be put on a group of people who I don’t know of any who have any medical experience, versus having the provincial health office working with the government and the Ministry of Education that could be implemented everywhere in all of our districts. Our members deserve to have equitable, equal opportunities to be safe everywhere.”
The B.C. Teachers’ Association president Teri Mooring, in an email sent Friday to BCTF members, the teachers' union it supports a mandatory vaccination policy be put in place by the provincial government and that it should not be left up to individual school boards. Earlier this week, CUPE BC president Karen Ranalletta spoke out in favour of a vaccination requirement for CUPE members working in K-12 schools. The CUPE union has nearly 1,000 members employed in Prince George district schools.
School District 57 board chair Sharel Warrington, who took over the position in September after Trent Derrick resigned, said no decision will be made until after the SD 57 board has had time to discuss the guidelines and recommendations of a provincial advisory committee formed after Horgan’s announcement on Thursday.
Warrington admits she and the board were blindsided when suddenly thrust into the role as vaccine mandate decision-makers and no decision will be made until after the legal, contractual and operational ramifications of such a policy have been determined.
“It’s concerning because for the whole pandemic we’ve been following the protocols based on provincial health officer direction and we’ve done that in consultation with our local health authorities, so having this decision shifted to boards of education is a challenge because we need to seek legal guidance and a common framework,” said Warrington. “That’s what we’re doing now to ensure there’s some consistency throughout out K-12 sectors. We need to have the understanding of how a mandate like this should be implemented before we consider implementation. We need to have guidance there. We are a board of education that does not have that expertise.”
The advisory group includes representatives from the B. C. Teachers’ Federation, CUPE, BC School Trustees Association, BC Public School Employers’ Association and the First Nations Education Steering Committee and the Ministry of Health.
By sometime next week, Warrington said she expects the committee will have the framework in place to show how school boards will enforce mandatory vaccinations to deal with school staff who refuse to get vaccinated and how to address privacy concerns. Until that framework is in place and trustees have met to discuss the details, the board will reserve its decision.
“It does require that we are on the ball and we are careful, that whatever decisions we make, we get them right,” said Warrington. “Tuesday would probably be the earliest we get something to guide our decisions, then we would have to have our meeting and move from there.
“We continue to encourage all our employees to get vaccinated. It’s wise. It’s their decision, but we do encourage it.”
A vaccine mandate now applies to the BC government’s 30,000 public service workers, who will have to be vaccinated by Nov. 22.
BC Hydro will make proof of COVID vaccine mandatory for all employees of all the Crown corporation’s worksite, including Site C, by Nov. 22, and all contractors and their employees working at those sites will have to meet that requirement by Jan. 10.
Beauregard says a vast majority of local teachers are in favour of a vaccine mandate and he says he’s heard from only three or four PGDTA members who are against it, either for concerns about privacy or personal-choice reasons.
“We want to make sure that any process that is implemented for mandatory vaccination does respect privacy,” he said. “Your medical information should be private and also if someone medically can’t be vaccinated we would hope and expect there would be accommodations put in place for the employer to follow.
“If members do refuse, we also would be working with the federation to ensure the employer treats those members fairly and that there’s a process when that situation arises.”
Beauregard said a COVID-19 exposure this week at Southridge Elementary School was not reported on the Northern Health website and he and other teachers learned about it through the news media. He says that has created a high level of anxiety among teachers.
“There’s a lot of absenteeism with students and teachers, a lot of illness right now and we are aware when there is COVID infection because our members tell us when parents tell them that there is COVID infection, but we’re not hearing from Northern Health on school exposures, which scares me,” said Beauregard.
“I fear that we don’t know how much COVID is out there. We know, in our community, we have the highest vaccination rate in our region and we can take some comfort in that, but it’s not the same everywhere and people are working under fearful conditions a lot of the time.”
me everywhere and people are working under fearful conditions a lot of the time.”